Confessions of a Child of Jazz
Charles Mingus hated the word "jazz." It would set him off and it should set anybody off who finds themselves, what is it, trapped? is that the right word?--trapped in an evolutionary process, that's what it is, trapped in the progressive development of an American-conceived music, a musical culture actually, that first showed itself as a twist in the way similar minds on the same broad track approached olden-days band music. Bands started in the lower schools. High schools had bands. Colleges had bands. Cities had bands, too, in those days--every town in the US of any size at all usually had a city band.
The schools were a way to get a music education--all schools--grade schools--blacks, whites, whatever, schools had music classes--in grade school we had rhythm bands, triangles, tambourines, clappers, stuff like that--with the triangle being my favorite instrument in my first rhythm band--man, I fought and cursed to keep my triangle--we were supposed to change instruments every day, but I wouldn't. Schools gave kids chances to get their hands on an instrument that wasn't a piano, which nearly all homes had once upon a time in this country, instruments like trumpets, trombones, saxophones, tubas, Sousaphones, French horns, oboes, glockenspiels, all sorts of drums, snares, bass, tom-toms--and they were called tom-toms for a reason--and that's the way you were supposed to play tom-toms, like they were originally played in Africa when they were made out of hollowed out tree trunks with animal skins stretched tight-as-a-drum over the tops of them, the thin skins held stretched tight and perfectly taut by animal gut cords stretching out the skins, the cords tied firmly at the bottoms of these tree trunks now drums, twisted so tight the different tightnesses of the drum-skins began giving off different tones, tones that could be controlled by tightening or loosening animal gut cords and changing the tautness of the drumheads. Antelope guts, like deer guts, made great cords--you tied knots in them when they're fresh and sinewy and blood wet and then when they dry they shrink and the tighter they shrink the stronger they get and soon you've got a cord or string that is amazingly strong in terms of tension and amazingly pliable in terms of the tension necessary to obtain whole tones and then to hold those whole tones in tune for the duration of a drumming session.
I like that word "session." I know the Irish have their sessions. And somehow that word got into jazz, too. Jam session. Cutting session. Recording session. And I'm waddling into this pool of historical observation for a reason. To show whoever reads this evidence as to jazz and what's jazz and what's jass and what and where is it today just what I think about today's jazz--and you, the READER, no matter whether this has any readers or not, are reading the words of a writer writing about an obsession with an especially American-conceived and born and raised and developed form of music still called Jazz in spite of Mingus hating the use of that word--Jazz, a music that has given birth from its own womb to musics that now call themselves "world" musics and try to separate themselves from the American version of whatever the music is they are claiming now as their own--and America originally was a melting-pot culture, a melting pot of sounds, too; the sounds of the fiddlers from Scandinavia and the accordionists and clarinetists from Poland and Russia and the Spanish guitarists and the Greek bands that developed in the American Greek communities, and the sounds of the French-Canadian/American Cajuns, and sounds of the two-stepping-fandango-ing of the Nortenans and San Antonio accordion-led Tex-Mex bands, and the earth-throbbing-heart-dancing drums of the Native American sounds--wild Mongolian-like chants made more powerful by chanting over and in human time with the instinctual drumming--chanting only just a little more minor than a southern black field holler--all of these wonderful musical cultures melting together in this big American cauldron--that is until the white man decided only his culture was the pure American culture and the rest was savage music--untamed, unwritten, uncouth--and the white man's contribution to the melting pot curdled and hardened and began to balk about giving in to the overall melt--oh, sorry, dear reader, but I'm given to flights of fancy, remember, I'm an improvisationalist--one reason I fly with Charles "Yardbird" (a bird (a dude) who hung around a railroad yard--you know, lookin' for a possible free ride--a way to take flight and leave the nest, dig?) Parker, Jr., who became a "Bird"--and why Dizzy Gillespie became the Bird professor, giving classes in Ornithology--the study of Bird--and Bird was given to flights of some of the fanciest flying that's ever been done on any instruments's keys--and all instruments have "keys"--and they are called keys because they are key to everything in life--all the keys of life--because using them correctly can unlock some of the most wonderful sounds arranged into what we then begin to remember and recall as "that's a catchy little diddy"--which is a tune and a tune becomes a melody and a melody leads to variations and variations lead to improvisation and you don't have to study Bach to become an improvisationalist, and you know this if you are a musician who wants to fly high or even if you are a writer who wants to write stairways to the imaginary universes, for to me, writer, musician, composer, painter, sculptor, graphic artist (hell, I accept 'em as genuine artists--they used to be our great illustrators) are the same thing; we all use keys--I'm using the keys on the keyboard of this computer right now to try and arrange all these "notes" (words) into some kind of rhythmical sing-song sort of way that they become easy to sight read and understand and get caught up in the melody of them all stanza-ed together and then come the variations of that theme and the many choruses of improvisational song that can come forth from it, some lasting as embellishmental keys for decades--I still to this day remember solos from records I heard fifty years ago and I still can improvise on them and I do when I'm fired up and playing the piano or fired up and typing on this computer.
How much passion for something like music do you have within you? Some of you are passionate readers--OK, OK, in music you become the executioners--in writing you become the readers, the understanders, the critics.
Corporations are not based on melodies and the variations of them; corporations are based on a steady DRONE--aha, like the drumming used on those ancient ships that the SLAVES had to row in order to give them propelled power--a ship of any kind can't go a lick without a bellyful of SLAVES to make it go--sails or none--wind or wave; corporate music is based on that drumming and whipping that kept those SLAVES rowing those boats of cultural spread--cultures taking their musics out into the unknown worlds surrounding them, using their musics to either march them bravely into wars of horrible slaughter leading to eventual victory--thus celebration--or march them in retreat and defeat--thus the blues of coming enslavement. Corporate music is out to enslave you; to keep you steady on your fieldwork. "Take this hammer--WHOP!/ and carry it to the captain--WHOP!/ take this hammer--WHOP!/ and carry it to the captain--WHOP!/take this hammer--WHOP!/ and carry it to the captain--WHOP!/ tell him I'm gone--WHOP!/ tell him I'm gone--WHOP!" That's the lyric to a traditional old chain-gang worksong from all along those Old South highways and county roads and state farm roads while the captain sat high on his high horse with that carbine rifle sittin' cocked across his legs--I first heard that song being sung by Leadbelly (meanin' the man could drink any kind of joy juice made including high octane gasoline or rubbing alcohol), who was really Hudie Ledbetter--and even reading the lyrics you should then catch easily the drift of what I'm trying to tie together now into a bag of luscious tricks with words--BIRD words, words that can take fabulous flight at any given moment in this improvisational world.
I have always been an improvisational man--a man who follows his instincts (turned into legends, yes) rather than what the lawmakers say is the correct method or rudimentary way--I'm antiauthoritarian, yep, except when I was a little cool cat we called it being a nonconformist. We were NONconformists, baby, and that meant we had our own songs to sing, our own invented riffs to blow, our own ways to dance out the energies of life that dwelt within us and really made us happy or they made us so sad they ruined our lives and turned us all no matter our skin color BLUE.
All of this because of my love of jazz music. Jazz music from its beginning; from when it was an African drum seducing the swivel-hipped come-ya-gal dancer in a tight leopard-skin clinging robe dancing her body as though it were the body of a cobra in a firelight's glow--the beat of that African drum intensifying as its seduction urges drive it to a frenzy of show--and SHE dances to that seductive beat and gradually the drive of that beat releases the catches on that leopard-skin robe and then the whole reason for woman's special beauty and attraction is revealed and then that relationship becomes a JAZZ relationship--and that's when the true reason for life kicks in and the male and the female of everything come together--COMING TOGETHER! And MAN that's hard to do--the complications of sex are the complications of life--what wars are fought over; and that good or bad sex gives us songs and marches and symphonies and 125-chorus BIRD solos that leave the earth and try to find out just how high that moon really is. The moon is more important to jazz than the sun is. The moon is the haunting of female beauty; the sun is life itself--all life and energy that is within us. The moon, however, represents everything cool, like a beautiful naked woman or Coleman Hawkins playing his multiple variations and inventions based on the tune "Body and Soul" for a bloody hour if he so wishes.
The Navajos love silver. They call it the "tears of the Moon." Why is the moon considered sad? Because it's on a reflecting hunk of moonrock--it has no self--it is the sun reflected as a woman--that's why wolves like me howl at it, especially during the damn roundest of its phases--though hell, give me a good half-moon and I'll come up with a long, well-conceived wail.
"Those cats are wailin', man." That was usually said about Dixielanders. They were the wailin' cats. The cool cats, they "cooked," which comes from hanging around kitchens--where a lot of musicians, especially black musicians had to hang out between sets--or just out the kitchen's back door in the alley back there, dig?--and these cool cat cookers followed Lester Young and wore the shades and the skypieces like Lester's pork-pie hat (and for a while there was a jazz club in Manhattan called The Pork Pie Hat--it didn't make it), or they copped the look of Dizzy's be-bop berets (yes, the Beats picked up berets from Dizzy)--Charles Parker, Jr., however, always wore expensive suits and ties and good shoes but never a hat--I don't ever remember seeing Bird in a hat. I'll tell you who loved hats, the old blues cats--and they wore suits and ties, too, but they wore the gaudy shit--I mean low-zoot, though they always had a well-blocked top of the line hat on their heads; Bird and Diz wore the high-zoots--the zoot suit was the cat's meow at one time--check out the real zootsuiters like Cab Calloway (Dizzy was in Cab's band) and find out where the "fly" look comes from--and where the bling and chains and shit on the hip-hoppers come from--hip-hoppers are nothing but new zoots--extreme boppers.
And the drummer who brought the drums out of the New Orleans parade beats and put them onto race horses and fast trains and fast cars (like Cadillacs) was Zutty Singleton--Zutty, pronounced "Zooty."
I feel like flim-flam floozying across an abandoned floor right now.
All of this discourse full of detours to get to a Website I found.
I had commented months ago on this blog that I disagreed with a writer who said New York City was the jazz capital of the world. I disagreed on the basis there were hardly any jazz venues left in New York City and the ones that were here were clogged by semi-famous names or guys that played with Miles, which doesn't necessarily mean they're very innovative, though Miles, an improvisational man, was certainly the most innovative jazz thinker yet--and I have heard a recorded interview with Miles where he said he hated the word "jazz," too. Remember, one of Miles's favorite things was when a white guy came up to him, at a party let's say, and started kissing his ass, you know, telling him bullshit shit like how great he is and white condescending shit like that, Miles, a trained boxer, would thrash the shit out of him and then start hitting on his woman.
And jazz men attract the most gorgeous-creature woman--and jazz women are cool as cucumbers, too--I once met a young woman piano player from Detroit, Terry Pollard, and she was so hip and cool and so at home around a piano, I fell in love with her madly, and told her so one night after she had finished a set with Terry Gibbs, the white vibraphone player who was damn good but went Vegas and Hollywood and wasn't taken seriously--except for one album he made called Seven Come Eleven --and the pianist on that album? Terry Pollard.
So I found this jazz Website--the Website of a jazz magazine started by these two white boys--one born in 1970 and one born in 1976--one saying he came to jazz from heavy metal via Miles's Bitches Brew album--a natural path to jazz for a heavy metalist to take. Here's the site:
A well-done site, don't you admit? I was very impressed with the work they're doing with this jazz magazine idea. My biggest disappointment was when the two proprietors listed the records they would take with them if they were sentenced to spend some time alone on a deserted island. One guy had Mingus's Blues and Roots on his list and one had Miles's Bitches Brew and Silent Way (he didn't say which version) on his list and the other guy had Coltrane and Ellington on his list, but the rest of their choices were shocking and rather awakening, too, to me--they listed old 80s-90s rock albums, heavy metal albums, and one guy listed Taj Mahal--Taj Mahal? Whaaaaaa! And to my most-mouth-open-stunned-looking disbelief, both of these young pups said they would take an Albert Mangelsdorf album with them, the German jazz mangler, and that really threw me for a loop. There was no Bird or Dizzy or Monk on their lists. How could you say you're a jazz lover and then when you are shipped off to a desert island you don't take any Bird with you? I might even ask why you wouldn't take some Louis Armstrong with you, too. Albert Mangelsdorf I personally would sail into the nearest garbage receptacle or exchange them for a full set of all of Bird's recordings--I think I could easily live the rest of my life with only Charles Parker, Jr's, recordings to listen to.
Jazz today. Ohhh. I don't know. Nancy Wilson is 70 years old and, yes, she does look good for that old'a babe--but I've heard her sing recently and, sorry, she ain't what she used to be. Lena Horne kept her voice until she was pretty old; so did Ethel Merman; so did Kate Smith as far as that goes--but a lot of singers blow their voices when they get old--Joe Williams the great blues singer who had one of the most powerful voices I've ever heard--and I've heard Joe in person and right up close to him, too--though I've only heard Robeson on recordings--but when Joe got old--his voice began to lose it--you can hear him singing solo on an episode of the old Bill Cosby Show in his last years--Joe Williams was Bill Cosby's show wife's father on the show; Cab Calloway sang pretty powerfully, too, up until he died in his seventies; and Al Hibbler had a big voice, too, but not like Joe Williams had--wow that guy could sing!
Tim Berne. OK. I admit, I don't know his work. I probably wouldn't go to see him--I don't know his work so I'd have nothing to reference him to. Most of these new jazz guys around NYC, I never have heard. The big stars seem to hang over at Wynton Marsalis's Dizzy Coca Cola Club--it pays to hang with Wynton--look, he's made his whole family the first family of jazz in less than two decades--Amazing! Wynton Marsalis even appreciates so untalented a copycat musician like Harry Connick, Jr. (how many black dudes did Harry's father throw in the slammer and then throw the key away on, Wynton?) simply because Connick claims Wynton's father--a rather undistiquishable piano-bar pianist in New Orleans when I lived there--he and Armand Hug--taught him how to play the piano. Oh boy would I be proud of that were I Wynton.
Where's Ray Charles when you need him?
for The Daily Growler